A Travellerspoint blog

Krakow to Olomouc

BY ABBY

semi-overcast 20 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Today we entered Czechoslovakia, our penultimate new country of the trip. When we left this morning, we saw that the weather forecast for rain was really coming true and it was coming down pretty hard. After we packed our car we put on our coats and went over to look at the stores to spend the rest of our Polish currency. We bought food for lunch at the grocery store, as well as bread and treats at the bakery. Mom gave Hannah and I the leftover change to buy ourselves snacks for the road trip.

After we had spent all that we could we climbed into the car and started our journey over the border. We stopped at a gas station for our lunch of sandwiches and pizza, and we bought a toll sticker for our windshield.

We found our place quite easily and we were greeted by a very friendly and helpful host. We are staying at this house for three nights, but we are staying the country of Czechoslovakia for a week total. We are staying in a suite of a house, which has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room. Everything is very spacious and clean, which is really nice too.

Last night we watched the Avengers for a change from our usual West Wing. Tomorrow we plan to take a rafting trip down the river in town and maybe even go for some mini golf.

Posted by KZFamily 13:05 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged travel czech czechoslovakia Comments (2)

Old School and the Salt of the Earth

by Ben

29 °C
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Jagiellonian Univeristy

Jagiellonian Univeristy

We are only a ten minute walk away from one of the world’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Jagiellonian University, which first opened its doors in 1364. Muriel and I visited the Collegium Maius which is its oldest building. A clock above the old library door chimes the hours and several times a day plays the University’s anthem while a procession of figurines marches out of two doors below the clock. We took a brief but fascinating tour of the library, professors' common room, treasury, assembly hall and a few other chambers in between. The entire building just breathed history and learning. It was more like a temple than a school.

Jagiellonian counts among its alumni the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. A famous Polish saying is that Copernicus is the astronomer who stopped the sun and moved the earth. In tribute to Copernicus, the roof of the library is painted like the heavens. Among the many treasures housed in the building are the actual instruments this famous astronomer used to arrive at his conclusions. The fact that the university has this equipment is astounding considering that Copernicus did his advanced studies and research in Italy. Already in the 1500s, some Italian academics understood the historical significance of Copernicus’ tools and sent them back to Krakow as a gift. It was a tremendous event and just as we would in our day, the university held an exhibition featuring these artifacts so all could see.

Besides having Pope John Paul II among its more recent alumni, the university has at least one very accomplished film maker and one Nobel laureate in literature on its list of graduates. It happened that a Finnish man on the tour was familiar with Poland’s award winning poet, Wisława Szymborska. He apologized to the guide that he had not read her poetry in its original Polish. Our guide shared an interesting tidbit about literature translation as a result. She said people who translate prose are considered slaves of the original author while those who translate verse are considered competitors. It is because of interesting tidbits like these that I still enjoy taking museum tours even after 8 months of visiting cultural and historical institutions.

Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

After our tour of academia, Muriel and I rejoined the kids and changed focus to take in the accomplishments of industrious and skilled labourers. Wieliczka Salt Mine lies just within the Krakow metropolitan area and is the world’s oldest salt mine, having produced table salt continuously from 13th century until 2007. It still produces salt today but no longer on a commercial scale. Its age and mammoth size (287 kilometers long) and depth (327 meters deep) are enough to make it noteworthy, but it is what the miners did with some of their working space that makes this salt works so famous. The mine consists of hundreds of chambers of which 40 have been transformed into chapels and many others into settings for carvings on mythical or historical themes. The rock salt is not white like you would expect but, rather, a shade of gray that is much like granite in appearance. It is the impurities in the salt that give it this colour. Despite the grayness the rock is still translucent. Our nearly three hour tour took us through some spectacular spaces and a couple of saltwater lakes. Perhaps the most stunning room is the Cathedral which took over 70 years to carve into its present form. As with all but the most recent carvings, all the work has been done by the miners themselves. As with everywhere else in the mine, the Cathedral has been constructed entirely of rock salt including the tiling on the floor. It has many complex scenes that tell Christ’s entire life story. Even the chandeliers in this space consist of salt, with all the crystals having been manufactured from salt that was dissolved out of the rock and then reconstituted and polished into crystalline masterpieces. In addition to the Cathedral, where mass is held every Sunday and weddings performed on a regular basis, there is a meeting hall that can sit 400 people for dinner as well as a large ballroom.

Pine Timber Support Work in the Mine

Pine Timber Support Work in the Mine

Not only were the rooms that were carved and decorated to be admired, so too were some of the rustic chambers whose cribbing and supports were painted in a white salt based paint to make them fire retardant and reflective of light. The timbers in the taller rooms knit together to resemble the interior of some sort of gothic church. Just as we found the Collegium Maius to be more than just a school the Wieliczka Salt Mine is more than a just a feat of ingenuity and sweat but a work in homage to these miner’s homeland and God.

Our glimpse of Poland has been wonderful. We will leave Krakow tomorrow wishing we had more time and thinking about how we can return someday. In the meantime we hope to shed some of the weight we gained from eating Polish style pizza, perogies, cabbage rolls and sausage.

A late night addition:

I now have more reason to put a return visit back to Poland farther in the future. I have more weight to shed. For a late dinner we went to a sidewalk kebab place just down the street. These kinds of eateries are all over Krakow. The easiest way to find one is to know the location of an open air fruit and vegetable market. It seems that just after the market closes these eateries open up and people stand around on the sidewalk or among the abandoned stalls and eat their meals.

Kebab Polish Style

Kebab Polish Style

The kebabs we ordered were adapted, much like their version of pizza (see Politics to Pizza post), to suit the local palette. In this case it was the use of cabbage and the addition of copious amounts of sauce that looks and tastes like a cross between Thousand Island’s Dressing and chipotle mayo that made our kebabs very much a local dish. It was fortunate that Abby couldn’t get her food order filled as the kebabs the rest of ordered were far more than the four of us could hope to consume. Gargantuan portions seem to be another Polish specialty. We are happy to report the food was delicious and this time came with napkins—all of which were sorely needed.

Posted by KZFamily 12:57 Archived in Poland Tagged poland krakow wieliczka_salt_mine copernicus jagiellonian_university Comments (1)

Walking in Krakow

By Hannah

sunny 28 °C
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Walking up Wawel Hill

Walking up Wawel Hill

Krakow has proved to be a wonderful city so far. It's great for wandering, has lots of little shops and cafes lining the streets, and has plenty of green spaces and squares to relax in the shade. Our time here has felt like a sort of vacation from our trip.

We spent the day walking the town and visiting the Wawel Royal Castle. There we found a large statue of Pope John Paul II, looking as jovial and good-natured as ever. Maybe we've been watching too much West Wing, but his face reminded us strongly of John Spencer. A gold dome, gleaming in the sunlight, marks Sigismund's Chapel. Royalty, immortalised in stone, are decorated with gold embellishments and crowns. We soaked up the heat and busy atmosphere. Then it was time for lunch.

Milk bars were popular during the Soviet era, as they were places for labourers to get cheap, if not tasty, meals. They've evolved since then, and are now places where people can get meals that are both cheap and tasty. The bars still look quite utilitarian, but they are packed full of patrons. We had handmade perogies, cabbage rolls and cold borscht for lunch. The first two were delicious, but our Western palettes couldn't quite handle the cold beet soup with a hard boiled egg floating the centre.

Later that afternoon, Mom spotted an eye-catching dress in the window of a shop we walked by. We popped in, and spent the next hour picking out dresses and sorting through sizes. Eventually, she decided on a pretty green one. I have to say that I picked out, and I think she looks great in it. I'll try to convince her to model it and take a picture for the blog.

We meandered back to the main square and took a last look around at the amber bazaar, where I bought a couple pieces of jewellery, and then strolled around a bit more, looking at the flower stalls and quirky performance artists. I don't want to say goodbye to Krakow anytime soon, but I'm still excited for our last brand new country, the Czech Republic. The last new country! I can hardly believe it either.

Posted by KZFamily 11:25 Archived in Poland Tagged poland krakow Comments (1)

Auschwitz

BY MURIEL

sunny 28 °C
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The gate to Auschwitz

The gate to Auschwitz

In the past, whenever I heard the word Auschwitz, it conjured up so many of the atrocities that the Nazis had perpetrated on the European population during the 1930s and 1940s. It was like that one word had the power to hold so many images, and so much hate and indifference. It wasn't merely a single place but an amalgamation of all concentration camps and all horrors faced by the Jews and others at the hands of Nazi Germany. It stood for the depths to which mankind could sink. Now that I have seen it, I realize that while it has come to be an actual, real place, there is good reason it has embodied what it has to me in the past.

We spent over five hours there today. Auschwitz was actually the site of three camps, two of which are still preserved today as a museum and memorial: Auschwitz I, the original main camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the larger extermination centre. We visited Birkenau first. The first thing you see is the 'Death Gate,' through which the trains passed on their way to the unloading platform. Farther down the track, well within the compound, is the long ramp upon which thousands coming from the train cars would stand as Dr. Mengele and colleagues performed the 'selection': one line would lead to actual showers while the other would led directly to the gas chambers. Approximately 75% of those getting off the train would be killed immediately. The remaining would be showered, shorn, tattooed, issued camp uniforms and sent to their barracks. Belongings from all those coming into the camp were confiscated, sorted through and organized for transport to an area of the camp called 'Canada,' so called because of the great wealth that could be found there (clothing, fur coats, jewelry, utensils, shoes, food, etc.). For the majority of the barracks, only the foundations remain; however, we were able to visit a few sleeping and lavatory quarters that are being preserved in order to understand the crowded and deplorable conditions under which the inmates lived. The inmates who weren't killed immediately lived on average an additional four months; those few who survived till the end of the war often had luck on their side, a privileged camp job or a unique skill that was of interest to the SS (e.g., could play in the orchestra, were physicians, etc.). Walking through the lines of barracks, now interspersed with thick, green grass, and hearing silence save for the birds calling to one another was surreal. We made our way down the road towards the ruins of the five crematoria (one had been destroyed by a prisoner uprising while the others were blown up by the Germans when they left the camp). Write ups and maps walked us through the process by which people were so systematically executed. The streamlined organization and terrible effectiveness of the procedures are absolutely horrifying; they generally killed 10,000 people a day in Birkenau. Trying to take it all in was impossible and yet, intellectually, we knew it had happened. Two months ago, Ben and I read a book authored by the pathologist inmate, Miklós Nyiszli, entitled Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account. It gave us a lot of background on the killing machine that was Birkenau. It also provided descriptions of what some prisoners would do just to survive a while longer. It didn't seem to take long for the effects of dehumanization to lead to prisoners' instincts of self preservation. We wondered how we would have reacted had we been in that awful situation.

Auschwitz: victims' shoes

Auschwitz: victims' shoes

The Birkenau camp is very large and it took us two hours to walk around most of the area. It is situated two kilometers from the main camp but, fortunately, the museum provides a free shuttle bus that runs between the camps. There is a sign at the stop that indicates it runs once at the top of every hour. When we hurried to the spot just in time, we found the very full bus departing. However, there were still a number of people left behind so we surmised they would have to send another bus soon. It was a hot day and we, together with the other visitors, were tired, overheated and ready to go to the Aucshwitz I camp, where we could go inside structures and get out of the heat. Therefore, it was important to be able to get on a bus as soon as possible. It seems we all felt the same way, as when it arrived shortly after, we all immediately started jockeying for position, swarming the doors, judiciously allowing the current passengers just enough room to exit so as to prevent anyone from behind cutting in front of us. We all managed to squeeze on and once the bus started moving, I commented to Ben that the short exercise of competing for bus space gave some insight into our question earlier of how we would all react had we been in the camps. It was sobering for us to realize how desperation would likely change any one of us.

The main camp of Auschwitz I was much smaller but, as it had a number of museum displays, took us longer to see. We were greeted by the infamous gate over which hangs a scripted "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work will make one free"). Here, the inmates' buildings in general seemed a bit more comfortable, although still ghastly. And some barracks had been devoted to human experiments, penal cells and execution preparations. Five barracks had been set up with a permanent exhibition; these housed very simple displays focusing on, respectively, extermination, physical evidence of the crimes committed, the life of the prisoners, conditions in the camps, and the death block. They explained the reasons why and how Jews, Poles, the Roma, and Soviet PoWs were exterminated or imprisoned in the camp. The German army kept a hoard of paper records and, even though they tried to destroy all such evidence when abandoning the camp, samples still remain. There were also numerous empty canisters of the Zyklon B gas shown. But the most real and horrific display was comprised of hundreds of kilograms of victims' hair, interspersed with thousands upon thousands of still intact braids. Liberators found bags and bags of human hair that were waiting to be shipped to the German textile industry for the making of haircloth. It is this display that is the hardest to view, even harder than the tens of thousands of shoes we saw in piles, or the multitude of broken spectacles, or the collection of prosthetics, or the compilation of children's clothing and garments. Each room would offer a new horror, a new way of compelling you to understand the immensity of what had happened here.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: inmates' barracks

Auschwitz-Birkenau: inmates' barracks

Through many of the corridors, we saw row upon row of inmate photographs. These were only of those who had survived the initial selection since the people who went directly to the gas chambers were never formally registered as Auschwitz prisoners. Of the formal 400,000 prisoners, at least half died in the camp, several were transferred to die at other camps, several more died on the end-of-war death marches and about 7,000 were liberated, many to die in subsequent days. These photographs were terribly arresting and I felt I should view each one to give them the respect and remembrance they deserved. It was hard to pull my eyes away and move on.

There is a lot more one could write about the site and still more one could say in general about the Holocaust. And, indeed, much has been written and said. However, we still all need to remember this event and to recognize similar events in the atrocities against people that are being committed today. It's my hope that by seeing this museum today I can be more driven to rise up against injustice, cruelty, and despair when I encounter it in today's world.

Posted by KZFamily 11:30 Archived in Poland Tagged poland auschwitz Comments (7)

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